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Thursday, September 13, 2001

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Terror strikes the heart of America

C. Gopinath

Tuesday began like any other day before it. I was in my office sitting in front of the computer and beginning the ritual of checking e-mail when my department secretary's voice called out from across the hallway,`` A plane hit the World Trade Center!''

I looked at Michael through the doorway and found him staring at his computer screen looking amused. I laughed for I always wondered how they kept those planes away from these skyscrapers. It was just past nine and the humour quickly drained from our con versation as he checked another Web site and said, ``Oh no!''

Another plane has rammed into the second tower. This is a terrorist attack! Successive attacks? Was this a terrorist bomb, or war?

Events began to quickly unfold. As work stopped and everyone clustered in front of the TV screen in a classroom where it had been set up, the true nature of the evolving disaster began to reveal itself.

As we watched, another image flashed of smoke from the Pentagon buildings in Washington, along with the news that another plane had crashed into it. Emergency vehicles were rushing there and traffic was blocked. There were reports that a fourth plane had crashed near Pittsburgh; the newscaster was speculating as to what its intended target could be.

When was this going to end? I looked around the classroom and found it full of people with ashen faces. Some hurried out, unable to hold back tears. These are vast centers of human activity. Airports, planes, office buildings. Almost everyone in the coun try knows someone who is working in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and New York City.

As the news began to flash across TV screens, radio waves and Web sites, people began wondering about their loved ones. The first instinct was to call a spouse, a sibling, a child, a parent, a friend. Someone, just to check if everything was all right.

Calls and messages began flying across the country. The radio kept making announcements not to use the cell-phones unless it was an emergency. After I found that all the people I could immediately think of in the affected areas were safe, I sat back with a feeling of helplessness. Helpless that sitting in the sixth floor of a university building in Boston, one could do little to help the situation.

I made more calls; not to check but to commiserate. Calls began coming from friends and relatives in India, even more panicked with little news and uncertainty about locations.

New York City stood still. Or so it seemed, as thousands were emptying out of offices all over the city having been asked to leave the area. The tunnels and bridges in and out of the city were jammed. It is remarkable that under the circumstances, there was no stampede. The people were just trying to get away from it, not knowing which was a safe area.

If the intent of the terrorists was to cause panic at these points of attack, their objectives were exceeded as almost the whole country came to a standstill. The federal government had shut down all airports across the country and international flights were being diverted away to other countries.

The Pentagon was the seat of the US military might, the headquarters of the defense department. If that building could be attacked, where was that might, we wondered.

The twin towers of the trade centers in New York were the heart of the investment and commercial activities in New York, which prides itself as the hub of the commercial world. A place where fortunes are made and lost. And these buildings toppled like a pack of cards.

The news reporters were making comparison with the previous major surprise attack on the US, the Pearl Harbour. That event, when Japanese planes bombed a naval port in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, resulted in the deaths of thousands and brought the US into the World War II.

By 10.30 am, I heard that the Prudential Center in Boston was being emptied out as the authorities feared an attack on the tall and prominent building in the city. The discovery that one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center departed fro m Logan airport in Boston was alarming. What will the terrorists do here?

My building is sandwiched between several tall State government buildings including the legislature, the county court, and the governors office. By 1 pm, we were asked to shut classes for the day and to vacate the building too.

The uncertainty of events and sound of sirens was causing fear of not knowing what was going to happen in Boston, miles from the places where the disaster had struck. The authorities were reacting out of abundant caution.

The scene was being repeated at major cities across the country. Most TV stations ceased their regular programming and began transmitting images of the events of the day. The scenes of New York City around the areas of destruction looked like the picture s of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan after the US atomic bombs were dropped there on 6 and 9 August 1945.

Tall and proud buildings have been flattened, with a thick layer of construction dust and rubble spread over almost everything. An eerie silence pervades the area, with rescue workers dashing across.

Thousands are believed to be trapped under the rubble. After all, about 50,000 people are said to work in the Trade Center area. The 110-floor twin towers had collapsed completely. Other buildings nearby had also gone structurally weak and collapsed.

Even rescue workers who had rushed to the spots after the initial news of the attack had been trapped under the collapsing buildings. Some of those trapped were making calls from underneath the rubble to their friends trying to give some description of t heir location so they could be rescued.

Families and friends of missing persons were rushing from site to site, and from hospital to hospital for news. There are still no estimates of the missing and dead. And the one main question that continues to linger in our minds is: Why?

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